skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050

About the Work

Johann Bach
Quick Look Composer: Johann Bach
Program note originally written for the following performance:
St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble Sat., Nov. 6, 2004, 2:00 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Brandenburg, in Bach's day, was a political and military powerhouse. It had been part of the Holy Roman Empire since the mid-12th century, and its ruler — the Markgraf , or Margrave — was charged with defending and extending the northern imperial border (“ mark ,” or “ marche ” in Old English and Old French), in return for which he was allowed to be an Elector of the Emperor. The house of Hohenzollern acquired the margraviate of Brandenburg in 1415, and the family embraced the Reformation a century later with such authority that they came to be regarded as the leaders of German Protestantism; Potsdam was chosen as the site of the electoral court in the 17th century. Extensive territorial acquisitions under Frederick William, the “Great Elector,” before his death in 1688, allowed his son Frederick III to secure the title and the rule of Brandenburg's northern neighbor, Prussia, with its rich (and nearby) capital city of Berlin; he became King Frederick I of Prussia in 1701. Frederick, a cultured man and a generous patron, founded academies of sciences and arts in Berlin, and built the magnificent palace Charlottenburg for his wife, Sophie Charlotte, which became one of the most important musical centers in early-18th-century Germany. When Frederick William I succeeded his father in 1713, however, he turned the court's focus from music to militarism, and dismissed most of the excellent musicians that his father had assembled; several of them found employment at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, north of Leipzig, where a young prince was just starting to indulge his taste and talents for music. Frederick William did, however, allow his uncle, Christian Ludwig, younger brother of the late King Frederick and possessor of the now-lesser title of Margrave of Brandenburg, to remain at the palace and retain his own musical establishment.

Johann Sebastian Bach met Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, in 1719, during his tenure as music director at the court of Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, the young prince who had recently signed up some of the musicians fired by Frederick William I. Bach worked at Anhalt-Cöthen from 1717 to 1723, and he and Leopold seem to have gotten along splendidly. The Prince enjoyed travel, fine art and, above all, music, and he respected and encouraged Bach in his work, even occasionally participating in the court concerts as violinist, gambist or harpsichordist. Provided by Leopold with an excellent set of instruments and a group of fine players (and the second-highest salary of any of his court employees), Bach enjoyed a fruitful period at Cöthen — many of his greatest works for keyboard, chamber ensembles and orchestra date from those years.

Early in 1719, Leopold sent Bach to Berlin to finalize arrangements for the purchase of a new harpsichord, a large, two-manual model made by Michael Mietke, instrument-builder to the royal court. While in Berlin, Bach played for Christian Ludwig, who was so taken with his music that he asked him to send some of his compositions for his library. Bach lost an infant son a few months later, however, and in 1720, his wife died and he rejected an offer to become organist at the Jacobkirche in Hamburg, so it was more than two years before he fulfilled Brandenburg's request. By 1721, however, Leopold had become engaged to marry a woman who looked askance at his huge expenditures for musical entertainment. Bach seems to have realized that when she moved in, he would probably be moved out, so he began casting about for a more secure position. He remembered the interest the Margrave Brandenburg had shown in his music, and thought it a good time to approach him again, so he picked six of the finest concertos he had written at Cöthen, copied them out meticulously, had them bound into a sumptuous volume (at no little cost), and sent them to Christian Ludwig in March 1721 with a flowery dedication in French — but to no avail. No job materialized at Brandenburg, and in 1723, Bach moved to Leipzig's Thomaskirche, where he remained for the rest of his life. It is possible that the Margrave never heard any of these magnificent works that immortalized his name, since records indicate that his modest Kapelle might not have been able to negotiate their difficulties and instrumental requirements. The Concertos apparently lay untouched in his library until he died thirteen years after Bach had presented them to him, when they were inventoried at a value of four groschen each — only a few cents. Fortunately they were preserved by the noted theorist and pedagogue Johann Philipp Kirnberger, a pupil of Bach, and came eventually into the collection of the Royal Library in Berlin. They were brought to light during the 19th-century Bach Revival, published in 1850, and have since come to be recognized as the supreme examples of Baroque instrumental music.

The solo instruments in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 are flute, violin and harpsichord, which was included as a featured instrument to show off the new instrument Bach had brought back from Berlin. The first movement opens with a vigorous tutti theme for the orchestra, after which the trio of soloists — the concertino (“ little concerto ”) — is introduced. It becomes clear as the movement progresses that the harpsichord is primus inter pares of the concertino instruments, and its part grows more elaborate with the passing measures, finally erupting in a sparkling ribbon of unaccompanied melody and figuration in the closing pages. A brief statement of the main theme brings the movement to an end. The second movement is an impassioned trio for the concertino alone. The entire ensemble joins the soloists for the finale, one of Bach's most joyous flights of contrapuntal ingenuity and rhythmic vivacity.

©2004 Dr. Richard E. Rodda